Opportunities ripen for new businesses
The tailspin may be over, but no one's suggesting that bedrock industries of the Michigan economy like cars and real estate are headed for boom times again.
The Michigan marijuana economy, on the other hand, appears to be going gangbusters.
Once largely underground, activity linked to the cultivation and use of pot is now in full public view thanks to voter approval in 2008 of marijuana use for medicinal purposes.
Equipment manufacturers, retailers, doctors, lawyers and publishers are suddenly advertising, hanging up shingles, opening storefronts and building growing equipment all over the state.
But suppliers of the newly defined medicine -- the certified caregivers who can grow up to 12 plants a year for as many as five clients -- are, so far, less visible in part because the distinction between legal commerce and criminal activity isn't always clear.
"There's a whole lot going on," said Matthew Abel, a Detroit attorney who has become a sort of medical marijuana specialist, "and it's going to keep growing."
Like a weed.
Medical pot opportunities flourish
Rick Ferris worked 25 years in construction until a debilitating leg condition took him off ladders. Then he got into landscaping and was doing OK until 2008, when "every laid-off guy with a truck" in southeast Michigan started mowing lawns.
But Ferris isn't complaining. In fact, things are looking up at Big Daddy's, site of his latest venture, an Oak Park facility to manufacture hydroponic growing systems. The kind used for growing marijuana.
Ferris, 46, is one of an increasing number of Michiganders looking to cash in on last year's voter-approved initiative that legalized the use of medical marijuana. In addition to his manufacturing operation (which shares space with the still-operating landscape business), Ferris is set to publish next month the first issue of the Michigan Medical Marijuana magazine.
So far, so good, he said in a recent interview.
Since getting under way in the spring, Ferris has hired five employees, three of them full-time. He has sold at least 140 hydroponic (soilless) growing systems and said without them, the landscaping business would have closed.
"I figured it was either jump in front or be left behind," he said.
Nobody can say how many of his fellow Michiganders are looking to make a living in the legal marijuana trade. But no one questions that the number is expanding rapidly.
In the first six months they were available, Michigan's Department of Community Health issued 5,100 certificates for the legal use of marijuana for people with chronic or debilitating illness. That number is expected to climb, although no one is guessing how high.
In the meantime, activists and entrepreneurs are looking for ways to make pot available to those who need it and to cash in. Or both.
In Southfield, a four-doctor medical practice opened in May that specializes in patients who require certification to legally use marijuana. It calls itself the Michigan Medical Marijuana Certification Center.
The center just hired four more employees and now have 11, including the doctors, said the firm's office manager, who asked that his name not be published.
The office manager said he recognized, as a medical marijuana patient himself, the need and opportunity for a specialized practice after an unpleasant experience with another clinic. But he's unsure what the prospects are for the long run because the rules governing medical marijuana are such a muddle that many potential growers and patients might steer clear.
"It could be really good for Michigan's economy if they clarified the statute," he said.
Matthew Abel, a Detroit attorney and erstwhile Green Party political candidate, said the medical pot law has been such a boon for his business he might "finally have to hire some staff."
Abel said the rush has come in three waves, first from patients inquiring about certification, then from caregivers (those authorized under the law to grow marijuana for patients) and lately from people interested in how someone might set up a retail sales operation or dispensary. His position: "My feeling is that anything is legal that isn't illegal."
Of course, much of the potential profit in marijuana-related commerce lies in selling the stuff. But Abel points out that the scale of sales permitted under Michigan statute appear aimed at keeping commerce at a low level.
Caregivers are authorized to possess up to a dozen plants for each of five clients and be reasonably compensated.
Larger commercial operations might be possible if a group of medical marijuana caregivers formed a cooperative, but no one in Michigan, including law enforcement, is exactly sure how.
Which might explain why none of the operations currently soliciting Michigan marijuana customers online returned calls from the Free Press over the last week.
Earlier this fall in Troy, an entrepreneur who told city officials he planned to set up grow rooms at a facility on Rochester Road was informed by the city attorney such use was illegal under federal law.
Two weeks ago, in a posting on the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association's Web site, he said he's going to do it, anyway.
That frontier spirit is not uncommon in the emerging world of legal drug trafficking.
Another posting on the MMMA Web site announces the launch of an enterprise that will "track costs and PAY TAXES for MM related transactions."
"Although no money has been made yet, I have had a ton of fun, never smoked so much killer weed in my life," the president of the enterprise, which is a legally registered business, reported.
BY DAWSON BELL
November 12, 2009